Whether it's breaking bread or passing the hush puppies, the Durham school board bet that the time-honored tradition of sharing food would lead to better relations and an opportunity to talk with parents without the tension of regular board meetings.
And judging by the constant buzz of conversation and easy laughter that intermingled with the smell of fried chicken and barbecue before last Thursday's board meeting, board members say they think the wager is paying off.
"People are actually talking about things we have not heard before," said board member Minnie Forte, while piling a little more barbecue on her plate last week.
The dinner was the first of several to be held before monthly school board meetings in the coming year in the "Be Our Guest" red carpet night program, an award-winning program borrowed from the Norfolk, Va., school system.
Board members Forte, Heidi Carter and Steve Schewel decided to start the program in Durham after learning about it at a school board conference earlier this year. They hoped that the meal would allow the board to hear from parents in a more intimate, less in-your-face setting than board meetings.
Several parents will be invited from each of the district's schools to dine with board members and district leaders. The parents are then ushered to the school board meeting, where they walk down a plush red carpet to claim gift bags. The parents then watch the meeting from reserved front-row seats.
The vice chairwoman of the Virginia district said the program had gone a long way toward improving her board's community relations. But Durham's red carpet night almost never happened.
Some board members said they thought it was a waste of money -- it is estimated to cost $3,000 a year. The skeptics also raised concerns that the parents with the biggest complaints would never get an invitation. But after ensuring the public that not just content parents would be invited, the board approved the new program.
And so Thursday, a newly renovated conference room in the district's administration building took on the charms of an intimate restaurant. Catered Southern cuisine -- including hush puppies and banana pudding -- was laid out on starched table cloths. Intricate floral arrangements adorned each table.
And bites of comfort food led to mouthfuls of conversation.
Estella Bell, a parent at W.G. Pearson Elementary, bent Deputy Superintendent Carl Harris' ear about the heating problems at the school. Through a translator provided by the district, parent Auturo Mendez told Forte about his concerns that many Latino students who are in the state illegally have little motivation to finish school because they can't get in-state tuition at the universities.
Kathy Hall, a parent at R.N. Harris Elementary School, said that she had not been to many school board meetings before but that she enjoyed this opportunity.
"I think it really will work to make parents feel like the school board is approachable," she said.
With its image often maligned in the community, board members said that is exactly what they hoped for.
Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 945-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@ newsobserver.com.